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Derrick Chandler stared in exasperation at the man sitting across from him. Why did campaign managers always have to try to change your life? He listened in annoyance as Cameron Stewart continued to tell him what he must do in order to win the Senate race, which he had recently entered.
He wondered why he hadn't just stuck to corporate law instead of throwing his hat into the political arena. He decided the main reason was the city in which he residedif you were a successful lawyer and lived in Washington, D.C., it seemed predestined that a foray into the world of politics would occur at some time or another.
Fingers absently tapped his chocolate-colored, cleanshaven chin impatiently and then brushed a piece of lint off the breast pocket of his immaculate navy blue suit. After Cameron talked until he was satisfied, then Derrick would have his saythe other man in the room would not be pleased with what he would hear. He disliked anyone telling him what he should and should not do, and Cam was treading on dangerous ground.
"Derrick, the simple fact is that you need a wife." Cam succinctly summed up his ten-minute tirade.
Derrick bolted upright in his chair, his gray eyes growing hard and cold. His voice matched his angry countenance. "And you need a psychiatrist."
Cam sighed audibly, not in the least put off by his friend's frigid tone. "Just listen to me "
"No, you listen to me." Derrick held up a hand forestalling his friend's words. "I tried the marriage scene once, and we both know what a fiasco that was."
"Well, I told you before you married her."
Derrick's darkening eyes stopped Cam cold. "You're treading on dangerous ground, Cameron."
"I know, Derrick, but just hear me out." He quickly continued before his friend could object, "You hired me to increase your chances of being elected and, whether you like it or not, I've got to tell you what I think."
"Well, I don't like it, but if you want to hear yourself talk, be my guest."
He scratched his lightly bearded chin. "We're doing great in all demographics except for women."
Derrick frowned. "I thought our numbers looked pretty good there."
"Pretty good, but if you had a woman in your life, one who could relate with and talk to other women, one on one, about their concerns, I have no doubt our numbers would double."
"Wouldn't a female member of my staff work?"
"Please!" Cam's look of disgust elicited a chuckle. "Man, this is Americathe land of opportunity, the home of apple pie and baseball."
Derrick rolled his eyes. "This sure sounds like a commercial."
"With the election a little over a year away, now is the perfect time for you to be seen as someone who has deep ties to the community, someone who has something in common with his constituents, someone who shares their dreams and hopes. The best way to identify with them is to be seen as a family man."
"You're not married."
"I'm not running for public office, either." Cam folded his arms across his chest. "You are and you need someone, and not just any womana wife. Just think about it, a built-in hostess for parties and a date ready and willing to go with you whenever and wherever. I know I'm getting through to you." Cam carefully studied Derrick's purposefully unreadable expression.
"Wouldn't a German shepherd accomplish the same thing as a wife?" Derrick smiled slightly.
Cam closed his eyes in frustration before quickly opening them again. "Will you try to see my point of view?"
"No, you try to see mine. I am not going to marry anyone ever again!" He deliberately emphasized each word.
Cam opened his mouth to speak, but closed it again as a buzz sounded from the phone on the desk.
Derrick yanked up the handset impatiently. "Yes, what is it?"
He was more than a little annoyedhe had left instructions not to be disturbed.
"If she won't tell you, then tell her I'm in conference and can't be disturbed!"
He unceremoniously slammed the receiver back into its cradle. He made a mental note to apologize to Dorothy once Cameron left. He was in a foul mood, brought on by the other man's ludicrous suggestion.
Cam was shaking his head disapprovingly. "People skills, Derrick. People skills!"
"What do I pay you for?" In spite of himself, he almost smiled at his friend's dismayed tone.
"To tell you what others dare not."
"Well, you certainly seem to enjoy that part of the job." This time, a genuine smile tilted the corners of his frowning mouth.
"My mother always told me I love a challenge, and you certainly are that." Cam picked up his briefcase and prepared to leave.
"Are we done?"
"Yes, we're done. I'll try to sell you on getting a wife later."
"Oh, joy." Derrick rose to shake his hand.
"Do you have anything else you need to talk to me about?"
"No, please go." Derrick reclaimed his seat behind the desk.
"See you tonight at seven sharp."
As Cam walked toward the door, Derrick grimaced at the thought of another political dinner/debatehe loved the debates, but he detested sitting around with strangers, making senseless small talk over steak or chicken that tasted like rubber and vegetables that had much in common with plastic.
"How could I forget?"
"Just be there, and on time."
"Anything else, Mom?"
"As a matter of fact, yes. But I don't have the strength to discuss it with you right now." He ran a hand over his bald head. "I used to have hair before you and I became friends."
"Later, Cameron." Derrick's sigh turned into a chuckle at the exasperated look he received before his friend left with a decisive click of the door.
Alone at last, he laughed out loud and ran a hand over his short-cropped hair. He enjoyed needling Cam, almost as much as he enjoyed his newfound career in politics. Best friends since law school, Derrick and Cam looked like brotherseach sharing the same dark coloring, height and build. They had been friendly rivals who had quickly developed a deep, lasting friendship.
Another chuckle escaped from his lips. Cam was right Derrick could always count on him to say what others dared not to. He supposed that was one of the reasons he liked him so much. That and the fact that he had always been intensely loyal and dependabletwo attributes Derrick valued greatly.
Picking up from his desktop a manila folder containing information on his running mate, he reclined in his plush black-leather chair as he began to leaf through the pages carefully, familiarizing himself with every detailit was always best to know one's opponent better than oneself.
Curious as raised voices wafted through the closed door to his assistant's office, Derrick wondered what had prompted the argument. Seconds later, the door abruptly swung open to admit a woman he thought he would never see againAlesha Robinson. Automatically, he stood and his icy eyes locked with her uneasy ones.
"It's all right, Dorothy. I'll see Miss Robinson."
He broke eye contact and nodded curtly in his assistant's direction. The woman glanced angrily at Alesha before firmly closing the door as she left.
He felt as if he had been punched hard in the gut, and it wasn't a pleasant feeling. Alesha Robinson was here, standing a few feet away from him, looking as beautiful as he remembered. Damn her! Damn himself for wanting to quickly close the distance between them, crush her in his arms and fuse his starving mouth with hers.
"What brings you to my door, Alesha?" He silently blessed his voice for sounding coolly controlled, when he felt anything but.
She looked lovelier than he remembered, dressed in a plain white sweater and black slacks. That silky light brown skin of hers begged to be caressed. His fingers itched to oblige. Her thick black hair was pulled back from her face, held in a clasp at her nape. He knew from experience that her hair was softsofter than anything else this world had to offer. To keep from walking over to her he sat back down in his chair. His eyes then went to her left hand and he wasn't sure whether he was relieved or angered that no engagement or wedding ring rested there.
He continued to survey her hungrily. His eyes drank in every aspect of her face, afraid she was a mirage he had to memorize before she quickly disappeared. He had sometimes wondered if the predicament her brother had gotten himself into would force them to see each other again. He couldn't decide if he was glad or angry that outside pressure had precipitated her return to his life, instead of her own desire.
Her steps faltered as her eyes refamiliarized themselves with Derrick's extremely handsome faceshe had almost forgotten the effect the mere sight of him had on her. Since their first chance meeting when they had both stopped to help out at the scene of a multicar accident, he had done strange things to her equilibrium. Although currently his face was hard and foreboding, she remembered how his infectious smile could send her heart racing frantically. He sat before her after all this time like a statuea beautiful bronze statue, she amended. She recalled how unbending his body had been against the yielding softness of hersthey had been the perfect complement for each other in so many ways. That is, until everything had fallen apart by her own hands.
Her stomach churned queasily and her heart began beating faster and louder in her ears as she stopped just in front of the mahogany desk behind which he sat. Her heart leaped in her chest, but was it from anxiety or happiness at seeing him again? Anxiety, definitely. She was here for businessto ask him for a monumental favorand for no other reason.
"Mr. Chandler, I need to speak with you." She was pleased with the steadiness of her precise and crisply articulated sentence.
"Why so formal, Alesha?"
"I'm here to discuss business, Mr. Chandler."
She made her voice curt, hoping the tone would end his unnerving inspection of her, which was causing every nerve ending in her body to silently cry out for what she knew from experience was his masterful touch.
He had an almost irrepressible desire to trace his fingers down that silky skin of hersit couldn't possibly be as soft as he remembered. Yet, instinctively, he knew it was. And her full, faintly tinted brown lipswould kissing her still feel like exquisite torture? Pure heaven, that was how he remembered feeling with her in his arms, and he was sure that observation was still accurate.
She waited uneasily for him to say something, anything. He seemed content to just stare at her. Piercing eyes traveled leisurely over her. What was he thinking? Instinctively, she knew she didn't want to know. Was he as disconcerted by seeing her again as she was at seeing him? She couldn't tellhe seemed cold, almost frigid. She felt like fleeing. Why didn't he say or do something?
He was annoyed at himself for behaving like a moonstruck idiot. With great effort, he tore his eyes away from her lovely face and angrily picked up a piece of paper from his desk. It took all his self-restraint to totally ignore her.
She bit back the angry retort that sprang to her lips at his callous actions. One thing she didn't need was to put him on the defensive. She had come to him for help, after allhelp that she really didn't deserve.
"Surely you can spare me a few moments." Her tone indicated she would accept nothing less.
He returned the paper to his desk and reluctantly looked at her once again. He mentally scolded himself as he felt his pulse rate increase as she ran her tongue over her upper lip.
"What do you want?"
She silently cursed him for asking a question he obviously knew the answer to. You might offer me a seat first, she silently fumed.
"I'm here about Robert."
At the mention of her brother's name, he closed the folder in front of him and motioned for her to be seated in the chair Cam had just vacated. She was painfully aware of the intense focus of his eyes and an emotion she dared not name hidden in their now-frigid depths.
"I was wondering when he would send you in to plead his case." In fact, he had been counting on it.
Her spine stiffened in the soft leather chair and quickly contradicted him. "He didn't. I came on my own to ask you not to press charges against him."